In retrospect, Ralph Stokes’ decision to entitle his memoir “One of the First” was the ultimate no-brainer.
Born in Montgomery in 1953, Stokes came of age during the latter days of the Civil Rights Movement when African-Americans had begun to break down the barriers of segregation in his hometown and throughout the South. Thus, he was “one of the first” of his race on his previously all-white football teams at Robert E. Lee High School and the University of Alabama, in his high-level business classes, and in various professional and social settings after graduating from college.
Stokes’ book, the full title of which is “One of the First: Lessons I Learned While Overcoming the Challenges of Integration” was published earlier this year by Called Writers Christian Publishing. Written with Chris McKinney, it tells the story of Stokes’ life from his days a high school football star in Montgomery, to being among the first African-American players at Alabama and up through professional success as an insurance executive and now as trusted lieutenant to business tycoon Arthur Blank.
“I was fortunate and blessed to be one of the first in several situations, but as I went through it, I’d never really counted it as one of the first,” Stokes said. “Iwas just, ‘hey, I’m here. I’m doing what I do.’ And you just try to do the best you can do to be successful. But I did have the perspective that I needed to be successful, not just for me, but for others, that would follow me.
“So many times as African-Americans, you go into circumstances and situations, and there are some people that have the perspective that you are not the right one. You shouldn’t be here and you feel like ‘I need to be successful,’ because if I am not successful, that’s going to reflect negatively on not just me, but on the race itself. And you’re going to get that, that old statement of ‘see, I told you they couldn’t do it.’ So a lot of times I did have the perspective of ‘I want to be successful,’ not just for me, but to make sure that I am creating opportunities for others in those situations, whether it’s football or something else.”
The star of an undefeated state championship team at Lee in 1970 and among the most highly-recruited athletes in the South, Stokes was part of the first Alabama signing class that included multiple African-American players. He and high school teammate Mike Washington joined Tuscaloosa’s Sylvester Croom in signing with the Crimson Tide in 1971, a year after Ozark’s Wilbur Jackson had become the first Black scholarship football player at Alabama and the same year junior-college transfer John Mitchell — who signed with the team in December 1970 — would become the first to play in a game.
Stokes was part of the freshman team in 1971, and moved up to the varsity the following year. He remembers a sense of genuine surprise when Jackson and Mitchell became instant impact players for the Crimson Tide, and paved the way for players such as him.
“I grew up with the sense that there was never going to be a day for us (in previously white college football),” Stokes said. “You watch Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, all the SEC, and it was fun to watch, but you’re not watching them when an eye that ‘one day, I could be on the field and I’m going to compete in the SEC.’ You just never had that perspective, because it hadn’t happened.
“… I thought that in all likelihood I was going to a historically black college or university to continue my education. … And when Wilbur signed, it wasn’t that much fanfare. It was kind of under-the-radar.
“But when John signed, it was during the offseason, and it was more of a big deal because he was a junior-college player who was expected to walk in and play immediately. You knew they were serious at that point about putting Black players in position to contribute. So that’s when I started to think ‘the door is being opened.’ At that point, all the SEC schools started knocking on my door.”
Stokes played for Paul “Bear” Bryant-coached Alabama teams that went 33-4, won three consecutive SEC championships and a national title in 1973, but never became a star. Injuries limited him to a part-time role along-side the likes of Jackson, Ellis Beck and Willie Shelby, but he finished his career with 337 yards and four touchdowns in 33 games with the Crimson Tide.
Like many players of his era, Stokes was in awe of Bryant during and even after his playing days. He said that playing at Alabama at the time he did has been a “godsend from Day 1” in the years since, both personally and professionally.
“It’s been said so many times that football is like a religion in the Southeast,” Stokes said. “And to have played at Alabama and played for the legendary coach, Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant — that in it of itself, has credentials to open doors. … I was one of the first African-Americans in the Southeast trying to sell employee (insurance) benefits to large companies. And a lot of them never saw a face like mine trying to do what I was doing, but they welcomed me in. In a lot of arenas with the opening question, ‘hey, what was Bear really? How was it to play for Bear? Or ‘tell me about the practices and things’ or ‘so and so moment in a game.’ I was welcomed in a lot of areas because of being connected to the great program at Alabama and the legendary coach that I was connected to.”
While a student at Alabama, Stokes resisted pressure to be pushed into a less-challenging “jock” major and enrolled in business school. He also joined a Black fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, against the advice of his coaches.
Stokes hasn’t stopped being a trailblazer since he left Tuscaloosa. He was among the first African-American members of Indian Hills Country Club in Atlanta and later the first Black president of the Georgia State Golf Association, and made in-roads as an insurance executive with customers who were previously hostile to those of his race — notably securing the business of a Tennessee company whose president was reputedly imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Stokes settled in Atlanta some years ago, and currently works as Director of Partnership Marketing and Community Relations for PGA Tour Superstore, a leading golf equipment and apparel retailer and one of Blank’s many companies in addition to his high-profile role as owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. He spends his free time doing charity work, including golf tournaments that benefit organizations around the country.
Stokes said that throughout the years, he’s never allowed himself to be merely a “token” in any of the environments in which he’s been among the first of his race. He’s made sure to take advantage of those opportunities rather than be “used” to put forth someone else’s social agenda.
“Initially it was ‘I’m here and I’m going to do the best I can,’” Stokes said. “But as I progressed through life, I really start to feel like it was a calling. It was something that I was placed in these situations for a reason. And I needed to embrace that reason. And whether the circumstances were good or not, I needed to embrace it.
“I’ve been asked the question on several occasions is that ‘you put yourself environment and environments where you knew they didn’t particularly want you once you were there, or there was a segment of the population that would rather you not be there,’ but they were using you for your talents because you had talents that they wanted or they thought could help, but they didn’t want you individually. So did you feel used? And I will tell you, I never felt used a single day in my life.
“I always felt like it was just an opportunity. I always looked at it as just an opportunity to use my gifts and talents, to make a difference, to contribute to the team or contribute to the organization and to show that as a black male, I could be successful in this environment. But I never felt used.”
For more information on Stokes’ book “One of the First,” click HERE.
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